An Urban's Rural View

A Postcard From The Camargue

Urban C Lehner
By  Urban C Lehner , Editor Emeritus
Connect with Urban:
The Camargue, the delta through which the Rhone River flows to the Mediterranean Sea, is famous for its flamingos -- and its rice. (Photo by Urban Lehner)

One of the places I just visited on my tour of the south of France is celebrated for its wildness. In reality, it is far from completely undeveloped.

It's the Camargue (pronounced KAH-marg, with a hard g), the vast (230,000-acre) delta where the Rhone River flows into the Mediterranean Sea. It's known for "white horses, black bulls and pink flamingos," but my guide was willing to bet big money that none of the horses and bulls are wild these days. "The only one of the three not owned by humans," he said, "are the flamingos."

The flamingos -- and birding, more generally -- was why I was there. The guide, Frederic Bouvet, has been leading birding trips in the Camargue for 30 years and he knows where to look. During our two days in the delta we observed hundreds of its 10,000 breeding pairs of Greater Flamingos plus 80 other species of birds.

The flamingos are pink thanks to the tiny brine shrimp they eat. It must be a good year for brine shrimp because our flamingos were in full color. We saw another species that dines on brine shrimp, the Slender-billed Gull, and their bellies were pinkish, as well.

The Camargue's retreat from wildness is as much about fauna as flora, though. Rice is now cultivated intensively on some 30,000 acres of the delta, which is well suited to the crop in some ways and poorly suited in others.

France isn't known as a big rice-eating country. Unlike neighbors that eat a main dish starring rice -- risotto in Italy and paella in Spain -- rice is at most an occasional side dish in French cuisine.

But while the French don't consume as much as the Portuguese or the Spaniards or the Italians, they do eat rice. Julia Child's classic Mastering the Art of French Cooking has recipes for several rice side dishes and even a rice pudding dessert.

Before World War II, the French imported rice from Vietnam, then their colony. The Japanese occupation cut off that supply, encouraging the startup of intensive cultivation in the Camargue. After the war, the U.S. Marshall plan provided funds to build water pumps.

Water, the fresh flows from the Rhone, are the Camargue's big comparative advantage; its fields are relatively easy to flood. Rich clay soil is another.

Climate is one of the Camargue's big disadvantages. At just under 44 degrees north latitude and cooled by dry north winds, the Camargue can be cold, especially during the critical April planting period.

Salty soils and nearby salt water complicate the Camargue rice farmer's life. Salt makes crop rotation trickier, among other things. Growers with less saline soil plant durum wheat every third season or so to control weeds but after a year of wheat, the salt, which rice leaches out, starts to come back. (…)

In addition, because government wants to preserve the area for birds like the flamingo and ecotourists like me, there are environmental constraints. Only about 20% of the rice acres are organic but even conventional growers can't, in Frederic's words, "use the really nasty chemicals the Italians and Spaniards use on their rice fields."

The disadvantages have weighed heavily on the scales. The number of acres planted to rice has declined over the years. Rice consumption has been growing in France, but the lion's share of the rice eaten is imported. Much of the Camargue rice is sold in Provencal shops under labels playing up the Camargue connection.


Thoughts can meander down unexpected paths when you're traveling. In the Camargue I pointed out some plastic pollution in the water. Frederic bemoaned the tons of plastic that flow down the Rhone into the Mediterranean. Googling, I landed on a World Wildlife Federation page calling the French coast "a hotspot of plastic pollution." (…)

That got me thinking about all the white plastic bags I'd seen blowing around Nebraska farmers' fields in winters when I was out looking for Snowy Owls. People use so much plastic and some are so careless about disposing it.

Then I went back to my hotel room. I opened my suitcase and was confronted with plastic bags holding a variety of liquids -- containers of sunscreen, mosquito repellent, liquid laundry detergent. Wouldn't want them to spill on the clothes. But I'd even used a plastic bag to keep my electric adapters separate.

Yes, I was forced to admit, I'm one of those people using "so much plastic."

Mine hopefully won't end up in the sea. I am a careful recycler. But still. If we all used less plastic there'd be less floating in the ocean killing fish, birds and even sea mammals. Problem is, like so many things that are bad for the environment, plastic is so bloody convenient. We may feel guilty about using it, but it's hard to live without it.

Urban Lehner can be reached at


To comment, please Log In or Join our Community .